Jin Hi Kim’s Collaborative Music Brings the World Closer Together

Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut is known for its celebration of world music and jazz—I used to go to what were known as “curry concerts” there when I was in college. Now the school is taking another important step with the world premiere of Korean composer Jin Hi Kim’s “One Sky II for Orchestra” on Monday, April 16, 7 p.m., in the Crowell Concert Hall. The music is dedicated to the unification of the two Koreas (which share the one sky) and is free. Panel discussions and film screenings are also part of the two-day Open Sky event.

jin hi kim

Jin Hi Kim with her electric komungo.

Kim is based in Bridgeport, and lives at the downtown Read’s Artspace (a former department store), surrounded by both visual and musical artists. She’s a master player of the Korean komungo, a stringed instrument that dates to the fourth century.

Korea has a rich vein of classical music that Kim has mastered, but that’s not where her heart is. She’s all about collaboration, including with many western jazz musicians over the last 30 years.

jin hi kim

Four Directions, featuring Jin Hi Kim with Elliot Sharp, William Parker and Hamid Drake.

“I got involved in jazz because I like to improvise,” Kim told me. She met avant-garde guitarist Henry Kaiser in 1986, when she was living in San Francisco and he was in Oakland. “He was fascinated by the kumongo,” she said. Since then, she’s made cross-cultural music with some of the best players in free improvisation—William Parker, Elliot Sharp, Gerry Hemingway, Oliver Lake, Derek Bailey, Reggie Workman, Jane Ira Bloom and Eugene Chadbourne.

“In the beginning, Korean music had a lot of improvisation in it, but once we were exposed to the western music system, everything became notated,” Kim said. “Since then, it’s all been memorized.” But things are changing. Jazz is increasingly popular in Korea, and not just Kind of Blue—free music is getting a listen, too, she said.

Jin Hi Kim_komungo in Mohegan Park, CT

Jin Hi Kim and her komungo get inspiration from nature at a Connecticut park.

Kim was in Germany when east and west were reunited, and she’d love to see that happen in Korea, but isn’t sure if and when that will happen. “Right now there’s not even much conversation between the two sides,” she said. “Families are separated.” The Olympics in South Korea created an opening that hopefully will get bigger.

“We share one sky; let’s talk rather than fight,” Kim said. In addition to “Open Sky II,” the second half of the concert will feature a collaborative performance with U.S., Japanese, Korean and Iranian musicians.

Kim is a prolific composer, and was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2010. As a soloist, she’s performed her own works at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Freer Gallery, and at numerous locations in Germany, England and Asia. I’ve seen her perform in an informal downtown show, and on a major festival stage.

Kim’s choral piece, “Child of War,” was dedicated to Kim Phuc—the girl in the famous picture of aVietnamese napalm victim running down a road.  Here’s some of Jim Hi Kim’s music on video from Public Radio International:

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